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Pass or Run: An Empirical Test of the Matching Pennies Game Using Data from the National Football League


  • Joseph P. McGarrity

    () (Economics Department, 304 BBA, UCA, Conway, AR 72035, USA)

  • Brian Linnen

    () (Werner Enterprises, 14507 Frontier Road, Omaha, NE 68138, USA)


This article examines play calling in the National Football League (NFL). It finds that a mixed strategy equilibrium game explains NFL play calling better than standard optimization techniques. When a quarterback is injured and replaced with a less capable backup, standard optimization theory suggests that the offense will run more often, passing less. Our game theoretic model predicts that the offense will not change its play calling because the defense will play against the run more often. Using every first half play from the 11 teams that had a starting quarterback miss action because of injury in the 2006 season, we find that the injury did not alter the likelihood that the offense would pass. We also find that coaches randomly mix passing and running plays, as the mixed strategy games predict.

Suggested Citation

  • Joseph P. McGarrity & Brian Linnen, 2010. "Pass or Run: An Empirical Test of the Matching Pennies Game Using Data from the National Football League," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 76(3), pages 791-810, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:sej:ancoec:v:76:3:y:2010:p:791-810

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. repec:wsi:qjfxxx:v:03:y:2013:i:03n04:n:s2010139213500110 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Steven J. Davis & Paul Willen, 2013. "Occupation-Level Income Shocks and Asset Returns: Their Covariance and Implications for Portfolio Choice," Quarterly Journal of Finance (QJF), World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., vol. 3(03n04), pages 1-53.
    3. Flavio Cunha & James Heckman & Salvador Navarro, 2005. "Separating uncertainty from heterogeneity in life cycle earnings," Oxford Economic Papers, Oxford University Press, vol. 57(2), pages 191-261, April.
    4. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, 2003. "An Empirical Analysis of the Risk Properties of Human Capital Returns," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(3), pages 948-964, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Duffy, Sean & Naddeo, JJ & Owens, David & Smith, John, 2016. "Cognitive load and mixed strategies: On brains and minimax," MPRA Paper 71878, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    2. Jim Downey & Joseph McGarrity, 2015. "Pick off Throws, Stolen Bases, and Southpaws: A Comparative Static Analysis of a Mixed Strategy Game," Atlantic Economic Journal, Springer;International Atlantic Economic Society, vol. 43(3), pages 319-335, September.
    3. Emara, Noha & Owens, David & Smith, John & Wilmer, Lisa, 2017. "Serial correlation in National Football League play calling and its effects on outcomes," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 69(C), pages 125-132.
    4. Emara, Noha & Owens, David & Smith, John & Wilmer, Lisa, 2014. "Minimax on the gridiron: Serial correlation and its effects on outcomes in the National Football League," MPRA Paper 58907, University Library of Munich, Germany.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C72 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory - - - Noncooperative Games
    • C93 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Field Experiments


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